She’s Not There by Tamsin Grey

The Blurb On The Back:

When Jonah and Raff wake up on Monday, their mother Lucy isn’t there.

Although Jonah is only nine, he is the big brother, and knows enough about the world to keep her absence a secret. If anyone found out she’d left them alone, it could be disastrous for him and Raff; and she’ll be back, he’s nearly sure.

With growing unease, he puzzles over the clues she’s left behind. Who sent her the flowers Why are all her shoes still in the house? Why is her phone buried in a plant pot?

And who, in their diverse south London community, might know more about her than he does? 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s a Monday in July 2013. 9-year-old Jonah lives in south London with his younger brother, Raff and his mum, Lucy, who has mental health issues. Their father Roland is in prison and they don’t talk about their Bad Granny after she tried to take them away from Lucy.

But when Jonah wakes up that morning, Lucy is nowhere to be found. She hasn’t left a note, her shoes are still in the house and he finds her phone hidden in a plant pot. Jonah is worried – Lucy’s never gone missing before and he knows that if anyone finds out that he and Raff are on their own, then they might get sent to Bad Granny who Jonah knows doesn’t even want Raff to live with her because he isn’t Roland’s son. So Jonah doesn’t tell anyone that Lucy is missing – he carries on getting himself and his brother to school and tries to manage as best he can, hiding the truth even from his mum’s friends Dora Martin and her partner Saviour. But even as he tries to keep things together, it becomes obvious that something is terribly wrong and he begins to worry that Lucy may never come back …

Tamsin Grey’s debut novel is a coming-of-age story framed around a thin mystery but while there are times when the boys and their dialogue is pitch perfect and Grey captures the selfish preoccupation of the adults around them, Lucy comes across as an awful person (mental illness notwithstanding), Grey sometimes makes Jonah precocious for his years and the story is saddled with a soap opera finish that I didn’t believe in.

Grey really nails the dialogue between Joshua and Raff, especially the way Raff by turns teases, rejects but also needs his older brother and his support. For the most part I also believed in the two boys and their respective attitudes, especially Joshua as he tries to make sense of what has happened to his mother and how he needs to handle the situation to protect both himself and Raff from the authorities who would otherwise send him to Bad Granny. However, there are times when Grey tips Joshua into precociousness, notably through his attempts to make sense of religion and what happens to people when they die as he learns about Hinduism at school and the fact that Joshua can’t find an adult to confide in with regards to their predicament does seem a little manufactured at times.

Lucy (who is seen in flashback through Joshua’s memories) was quite problematic as a character for me. Although it’s clear that she suffers from some kind of mental illness (possibly depression or bipolarism, it isn’t really clear in the text), I didn’t feel a great deal of empathy for her in part because her behaviour (as seen through the eyes of the boys and her friends) is so utterly selfish and self-destructive. I’m also not sure why Grey decided to give her a Zambian background as it didn’t add a huge amount to her for me and in fact empathised her ‘otherness’ within the text, which further alienated her from me.

I did believe in the self-absorption of the adults around the boys – notably Dora and Saviour, Lucy’s friends who are having to cope with Dora’s cancer having recently returned, which means that they’re more focused on Dora’s treatment. Similarly, I believed in the attitudes of the local shopkeepers and neighbours, who fail to notice that anything is wrong and are quick to try and be rid of them (although a scene where Joshua visits a local bookmakers to try and win some money was straight out of Hollywood).

The main problem, for me, though is that the plot is quite thin with Grey more focused on the boys and how their attempts to cope with their mother’s disappearance forces them to grow up. It’s not helped by the fact that the reader comes to realise what’s happened quite some time before the boys do and the actions of the antagonist did not ring true for me while the denouement is spoilt by a soap opera dramatic development that also didn’t ring true – not least because there was a Chekov’s gun element to it that was flagged early on but also because Grey starts the book by flashing forward 5 years, which robs that ending of a lot of its tension because you know what happens.

Ultimately, there were things that I liked about this book but the negative points stopped me from really enjoying it, although saying that there was enough here for me to be interested in checking out Grey’s next book.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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